THE BLOG
06/12/2014 10:13 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2014

Pop Culture - My Pop, That Is

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My father is sitting in his office, leaning back in his chair and staring at the ceiling. This is an office he's just been moved into toward the end of his long career as an art director at the Young and Rubicam advertising agency, and I'm a little worried about the look on his face.

He seems grim and preoccupied. I've dropped in unannounced, and this isn't how I expected to catch him. Usually he's working on a story board when I drop in. I've never seen him staring at the ceiling before. He looks like a guru contemplating the meaning of life.

"Hey, Dad, are you okay?"

His gaze doesn't leave the ceiling. He holds up a hand to indicate he's in the middle of something, and I should stand by. At last he lowers his hand and looks at me.

"Seventy-two," he announces.

Huh?

"Seventy-two what, Dad?"

He points upward. "I just counted seventy-two ceiling tiles. My last office had sixty-six tiles in the ceiling, so I guess I've been promoted. Not bad, eh?"

He smiles, folds his hands behind his head. I laugh out loud. Who counts ceiling tiles? Who looks at the world this way?

My old man, that's who. If life is a billboard my father is the guy on the other side of it, checking out the support beams, the angles nobody else notices. Makes for a pretty interesting person.

When I was in high school I once lent a dollar to a classmate. I told my father about it.

"Never lend anybody a dollar," he said, and I thought that was pretty harsh, until he added, "Lend five dollars."

I was stunned. "Five? He only wanted one!"

"Yes, but you'll be too embarrassed to ask for a dollar back."

He was right. I never saw that dollar again. (If you're reading these words, Brian McGinnis, you owe me a buck, with forty years' interest.)

When we took a trip to Rome everybody in our tour group was marveling over the breath-taking sculptures and paintings at the Vatican, but my Dad's gaze was trained on something far closer to Planet Earth. He nudged me and pointed at a gleaming structure at the back of the church, with a slot at the top.

"Look at that," he said. "A golden poor box." Further comment was unnecessary.

Father's Day is just another excuse to sell Hallmark cards, but as long as it's on the calendar I'd like to express my gratitude for being sired by a man who has never gone with the flow, not once, not ever.

At age 88 Tony Carillo is still in his own little rowboat, paddling the other way. He's the least predictable person I've ever known, and that's my ultimate compliment.

Want to know what people are really made of? Drop in on them unannounced. I did that to my father another time, not long after I caught him counting ceiling tiles.

This time it's around mid-day, and he isn't in his office. I tell the floor secretary I'm his son and ask where he might be - had he been moved to yet another office, maybe, with even more ceiling tiles?

She doesn't crack a smile. A shadow falls across her face, and she seems reluctant to speak.

"Where is he?" I demand.

She sighs, leans forward. "Down the hall, third door," she whispers. "I wasn't supposed to tell anyone."

Here we go, I think - at last, my father fits the "Mad Men" cliche. A mid-day grope on the couch with a tasty young girl, while his loyal wife, my mother - the only woman who could have put up with his quirky behavior for the past 60 years - is cooking his dinner and ironing his shirts!

How could he? With a trembling hand I reach for the knob on that third door and burst into the room. Then I burst out laughing.

A young copywriter named Wally Boss is sitting on a tall chair with a cowl around his neck while my father, scissor and comb in hand, is giving him a haircut.

It's a sideline skill my father picked up somewhere along the way - barbering. He takes a break to speak with me out in the hallway.

"These young guys don't make much money," he explains. "Why should they pay for haircuts?" He flicks the hair at the back of my neck. "Hey, it's getting a little long. You want a trim? You're next, after Wally."

Charlie Carillo is a novelist and a TV producer for the show "Inside Edition."